De Lisle was born at Lons-le-Saunier, reputedly on a market day. His parents lived in the neighbouring village of Montaigu. A plaque was placed at the precise spot of his birth and a statue erected in the town's centre in 1882. He was the eldest son of Claude Ignace Rouget (5 April 1735 - 6 August 1792) at Orgelet and Jeanne Madeleine Gaillande (2 July 1734 - 20 March 1811).
He enlisted into the army as an engineer and attained the rank of captain. The song that has immortalised him, La Marseillaise, was composed at Strasbourg, where Rouget de Lisle was quartered in April 1792. He wrote the words in a fit of patriotic excitement after a public dinner. The piece was at first called Chant de guerre pour l'armée du Rhin ("War Song for the Army of the Rhine") and only received its name of Marseillaise from its adoption by the Provençal volunteers whom Barbaroux introduced into Paris and who were prominent in the storming of the Tuileries Palace on the 10 August. Rouget de Lisle was a royalist and was cashiered and thrown into prison in 1793, narrowly escaping the guillotine. He was freed during the Thermidorian Reaction.
Rouget de Lisle wrote a few other songs of the same kind as the Marseillaise and in 1825 he published Chants français (French Songs) in which he set to music fifty songs by various authors. His Essais en vers et en prose (Attempts in Verse and Prose, 1797) contains the Marseillaise; a prose tale Adelaide et Monville of the sentimental kind; and some occasional poems.